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College 101: Mineral and Gemstone Collecting 101

I'm the kind of person who likes to geek out on things. When I get into something, I really get into it: I want to read all about it, get into any relevant subcultures, and so on. So I should've known that I was getting myself into something when, on a whim, I bought a couple of minerals in a museum gift shop.

Now I'm curious: how serious do people get about collecting minerals? I see these little rocks for sale in gift shops all the time, but I never really thought about it until I bought my own. Where can I learn more about minerals (and gemstones, and whatever other things are related)? How can I make my collection bigger and better? Experts, please tell me everything that I should know about this!

People collect just about everything, and gemstones and minerals are no exception. In fact, gemstones and minerals are among the most traditional and sensible things to collect. Haven't human beings been picking up pretty stones for as long as there have been humans? Gems and minerals can be beautiful to look at, fascinating to study, and wonderful to share or to turn into jewelry and other crafts. So, by all means, dive in! You'll find that you have so much to learn about mineral and gemstone collecting culture.

Gemstone and mineral basics

Let's start by talking about the minerals and gems themselves. What are they?

Minerals are inorganic solids that have distinct chemical or crystal structures. The term “gemstone” refers to something a bit more human-influenced: a gemstone is cut to look good and, perhaps, to be used in jewelry or for other decorative purposes. Minerals can be made into gemstones, but a few gemstones are not minerals. In practice, the term “gem” is sometimes used interchangeably with minerals.

The incredible diversity of gemstones and minerals can seem almost magical, but its roots are in science, of course. The different appearances of gemstones and minerals have to do with their makeup, structure, and the ways in which they were formed. For instance, agate is formed within volcanoes like the ones that are active right now in Hawaii. Other minerals are formed deep in the Earth. Our planet is one big mineral- and gemstone-creating machine!

Getting started as a collector

As a newcomer to gemstone and mineral collecting, your best bet is to grab a few basic books on the subject and to start looking at blogs. An informative blog by collector Howard Fensterman is a great place to start, and it will give you lots of information on collecting and on gems and minerals themselves.

Building your collection can be as simple as buying gemstones and minerals, as you've already discovered. You can jumpstart things by looking for beginner's sets that offer lots of collection staples in one big bundle. The gemstones included in these starter sets will usually be less rare and pricey ones, but that is likely to be just what you're looking for as a newcomer to collecting.

You can also join your local mineral club (yes, mineral clubs are a real thing), where you’ll meet like-minded mineral fans.

Expanding your collection

Taking your collection to the next level will involve buying pricier minerals and gems or — if you're interested in a more hands-on approach — hunting for minerals yourself. That’s called “rockhounding,” and it’s a popular hobby in and of itself. Serious searches for minerals can take you to far-flung places and to rocky shores and outcrops. For some gem and mineral fans, that's part of the fun! Others are more likely to stick to buying and swapping stones collected by others.

How seriously you take your new hobby, and what direction you want to take your gemstone and mineral fandom in, is entirely up to you! You’ll find a lot of ways to enjoy these beautiful and timeless natural objects, so take your time researching and exploring your new hobby, and — above all — have a lot of fun!

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